Ramadan: It Was The Best of Days, It Was The Worst of Days

Ramadan: It Was The Best of Days, It Was The Worst of Days June 5, 2017
Iftar serving in the Imam Reza Shrine Credit: Mohammad Hossein Taaghi
Iftar serving in the Imam Reza Shrine
Credit: Mohammad Hossein Taaghi

When I used to be a practicing Muslim, I actually did not fast that often and I was never forced to but my classmates or friends who were fasting would make me feel like less of a person and less of a Muslim for it every time. So fasting very much became a status thing for me. I wanted status, I wanted to feel included in that community, so I would fast sometimes too. Whenever I did fast, it largely was my choice, it was never actually imposed on me except in those subtle ways where my friends and classmates would look down on me for not fasting.

I carried that “holier than thou” air with me whenever I fasted, I thought anyone who would eat around me (while knowing that I am fasting) was being super disrespectful. I thought I had the right to get angry at them. This one time I got really angry at a friend because she was eating an apple in front of me. And I just went completely off on her like, “Can’t you respect that I am fasting? Be respectful and don’t eat this apple in front of me.” I made a huge fuss out of it, until my dad set me straight and told me my reaction was entirely uncalled for and he was right. Sometimes when I think about the reaction I had back then, I cannot believe that the person having that reaction was me.

However, there is a deeper reason here why I reacted the way I did, and it goes much deeper than the “holier than thou” attitude I would possess during fasting. I was angry at my friend because I was pretty sure I had every right to be. I had dealt with other people’s anger for eating around them while they are fasting and I thought to myself, why should my friend be subject to different rules? She, too, deserved anger just like I did. She deserved the same scorn that I would get from others for eating around them during Ramzan. My anger was still pretty mild compared to some other people’s anger; there were kids in my school who became victims of actual violence for eating in front of other kids who were fasting. And here is what my school’s principle had to say about that, “Don’t beat them, they are unfortunate people who have decided not to fast in this holy month, but don’t beat sense into them…let the unfortunate be unfortunate.”

Since I did not really fast that often, the saddest part of Ramzan for me would be my school’s cafeteria being closed for the month. They sold the best kabab rolls there, I would miss them the whole month. What I loved most about Ramzan, on the other hand, were the delicious iftars. Dahi baray, jalebis, dates, fruit chaat, pakoray, samosay, rooh-afza and rooh afzah in milk – the table filled with all this delicious food every evening. I still miss that. And I would hog it all even though I was rarely ever fasting. Community is another thing that I do miss about Ramzan, all the family getting together to break the fast and to share food. Often times, our neighbours would send food for iftar, and we would do the same for them. I also loved that through out Ramzan, our school days were shorter, so we would be out by 12 pm or 1 pm instead of 3. As a kid, that was the best thing that could happen! But I did not like angry drivers, and angry bus conductors, and angry teachers, so many people were always so angry during this “holy” month. And who wouldn’t be if they were starving themselves while also sweating themselves to death because of the hot weather?

I think that when people say that fasting feels “great” are often just lying to themselves. I don’t think anyone truly wants to fast, if they did, they wouldn’t be so angry the whole time. Apparently, fasting is also about controlling your anger but that is too unrealistic a demand when you as a Deity are also demanding people to starve for half the day while sweating their guts out. I also did not like how it was women of the family always toiling themselves in the kitchen and preparing food. The very concept of a man contributing in the household (in any way other than financial) is foreign concept in Pakistan. And this reality would be very much in the face during Ramzan. I would often think to myself what it is like for the poor people in my country to fast. They barely have enough to eat as it is, and yet they would fast despite the fact that they never could afford the food for breaking or starting the fast that middle-class families like mine could.

I would often think to myself how the poor broke their fast when there is very little that they could put on their tables. They did not even get the luxury to look forward to a delicious iftar dinners. Yet, I do not think that poor people sympathized with themselves as much as I sympathized with them. They were often were very proud of dealing with the ordeal despite the fact that their economic situation makes fasting that much harder for them. Of course the poor are told that their discomfort in this life will lead to abundant comfort and riches in the after-life, but I wish religion would draw a line there – poor people (especially in my country) live very uncomfortable lives as it is, they starve as it is, they should not be obligated to fast.

I have heard that one of the main points of fasting is so we are able to realize how poor people with not enough food to eat feel every day. Why then must they be obligated to fast when they already do know what it is like to be poor, to not know where your next meal is coming from? And why are we not told to be naked for an entire month so we can realize what it feels like to not have clothes to wear? Oh, that’s right, because modesty and such. In any case, I do not think any amount of fasting will make a well-fed, middle-class person realize what it is like for poor people who struggle to put food on the table. The well-fed, middle-class person will always have the guarantee that a delicious iftar awaits them, and they will know that once the month is over, their temporary suffering would come to an end. Fasting in order to come close to knowing about what it’s like to be poor and hungry is the equivalent of when upper-middle class white folks decide to sleep in boxes for a few nights in order to raise awareness about homelessness. It is merely self-flagellation at the end of the day.

I think I have fasted a total number of 20 times in my life, and it is so baffling to me that there are people who do that for an entire month straight for years of their lives. I still have some vague memories from my first fasting day ever, I believe I was 10 or 11? I just remember being thirsty much more than I remember being hungry. And my friend gave me the advice then that I should just form water with my saliva and swallow it. Of course it didn’t work, but if the mind can convince you to believe you will go to heaven for starving yourself, then the mind can also convince you to believe that swallowing your saliva helps with the thirst. You know, the placebo effect.

I also remember second-guessing my every move on that day, I tried my best to not masturbate…and I succeeded. Lots of people had told me that brushing your teeth breaks your fast, but thankfully my mother didn’t believe that bullshit so I thought brushing my teeth would be fair game and I did brush my teeth. But contradictory views on whether or not one can brush their teeth can confuse the hell out of you as a child who badly wants to do everything right. I had also heard so many mixed things about watching movies and listening to music during Ramzan. But I just thought myself: What the hell, music and movies will help distract me from my hungry thirsty dying misery. So I went ahead and listened to music and watched movies…making sure that I skip all the love scenes, and that I closed my ears whenever I heard the F-word in a movie or a song. It was a bad day full of struggle, the first time that I ever fasted. Iftar time finally arrived, and god, did I eat the food like a pig or what. I just couldn’t stop eating. Fasting felt like this big survival game, and I had won, and all this food was my reward.

I have fasted a few times in my life but fasting never meant much. Ramzan, on the other hand, definitely did mean something. And having been here in Canada for 9 years, it’s just meant less and less and less with each passing year. Here in Canada, it’s never the Ramzan I knew, or grew up with and what Ramzan is for me will always lie deep in the memories I have of Pakistan. And this Nostalgia is always a little painful. The month of Ramzan has turned to a Nostalgia Factory for me since I came to Canada. The nostalgia is not for the fasting (that I rarely did) but for all the good things like community and great food that is shared around with the community and the excitement for Eid that Ramzan brings with it. The stores would start selling Eid cards as early as mid-Ramzan. And Eid is the day that I would be looking forward to the whole month of Ramzan. My cousins and I would go out shopping for Eid clothes, and right before the day of Eid, we would go get henna done on our hands. And that, in large part, is what Ramzan was for me then – great food and the anticipation for Eid.

A while after coming to Canada, I was still that cultural Muslim, who barely believed in the core principles of Islam but I still fasted the first few years that I was here. I think this was my way to cling to a community when I felt like the community I had in Pakistan is forever lost now. I was doing it because when you go through the terrible culture shock and alienation that I felt during my first year here, you sometimes hold on to some integral parts of your culture to assure yourself that you still belong. I loved having my aunts and uncles and my mother validate me. I loved hearing them say things like: “It must require so much patience. You are so brave.” My dad didn’t care much either way (thank god for that). But now when I think of those comments, I just get slightly mad. In normal circumstances, without that context of religion and rewards, they would never have been happy about me starving from 5 AM to 8 PM. But put religion in the equation, and starving becomes glorious. Fasting, in some ways, is religiously glorified disordered eating.

The last time I ever fasted was in 2011. Now, Ramzan comes and goes before I know it. Sometimes I think that if it weren’t for the internet, I would not have even known about Ramzan starting. There is something a little sad about a month that meant so much to me all of a sudden meaning nothing. Ramzan is nostalgia, happy and sad nostalgia. Ramzan is painful for many people I know. Every year during Ramzan, my facebook feed fills up with posts by ex-Muslims about how this practice of fasting is imposed on them and how they have no say. And I am reminded that feeling at all nostalgic about this month is a luxury I have because it was never made mandatory for me to fast. Not when I was a practicing Muslim, and not now. My heart goes out to Ex-Muslims for whom this month is so unbearably hard, who are forced to live under pretenses of believing in Islam, y’all are in my thoughts. And a Ramzan Mubarak or Happy Ramzan greeting is simply not justified until the day that you all are free NOT to fast.

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